A variety of things make it harder to stay healthy in the winter – cold temperatures, too little sunlight and annoying flu viruses. Plus, the dark skies and lack of sunshine can make you feel sluggish and zap your motivation to do things that are good for you like exercise and eat right. When temperatures are subfreezing outside you may feel more like hibernating than staying active. Winter isn’t the time to let down your guard and revert to bad eating habits and too little physical activity. In fact, good health habits are more important in the winter than at any other time of year. Need some tips? Here are five things you can do this winter to stay energized and healthy until spring arrives.
Get Enough Vitamin D
Your vitamin D level can drop in the winter, especially if you live in an area that gets little direct sunlight. When it’s exposed to sunlight, your skin makes a vitamin D precursor that’s converted to vitamin D by your liver and kidneys, but it needs enough sunlight to do this. Research shows vitamin D levels decrease in the winter, especially among people who live in northern regions. How does this impact your wintertime health?
A low vitamin D level makes you feel tired and less energetic. It can even cause vague muscle aches and pains you blame on being tired or the weather. Plus, vitamin D is important for a healthy immune system. Some research shows people with a low vitamin D level are more prone to catching the flu.
You can get some vitamin D through diet if you eat foods like milk, milk substitutes and yogurt fortified with it. Fatty fish and eggs are other good sources. But for the most part, it’s difficult to get enough vitamin D through diet alone. How do you know if you’re getting enough? Ask your doctor to check a vitamin D level using a simple blood test. If your level is low, you may need a vitamin D supplement.
Winter Health: Expose Your Eyes to More Light during the Day
The dark days of winter can wreak havoc with your internal biological clock and the circadian rhythms it controls. This affects the release of hormones like cortisol and melatonin that impact your energy level, immune system, sleep patterns and how you feel. A number of people have some degree of seasonal affective disorder, a type of seasonal depression that shows up in the winter. One way to keep your circadian rhythms on course is by exposing your eyes to natural light as early in the day as possible. When you wake up, open the curtains and let the light shine in. If possible, work in an environment with as much natural light as possible. At the other end of the spectrum, make sure you’re sleeping in a completely dark room at night to avoid disrupting your body’s biological clock and natural rhythms. Doing this can help you feel better mentally and physically all winter long.
Winter Health: Eat More Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are loaded with phytochemicals, including one called quercetin, which may offer protection against the flu. In a study carried out in mice, two groups of mice exercised to exhaustion on a treadmill. One group of mice got supplemental quercetin while the other didn’t. Both were exposed to the influenza virus. The mice that were supplemented with quercetin became ill less often than those that didn’t get the supplement. A small study in humans also showed quercetin prevented illness after an exhaustive period of exercise. Good sources of quercetin include berries, grapes, broccoli, and tea. Fruits and many vegetables are a good source of vitamin C, a vitamin you need for immune health.
Winter Health: Add Variety to Your Exercise Routine
If you feel more like staying in bed in the morning than getting up to exercise, challenge and motivate yourself with a new workout. Slide a HiiT DVD into your DVD player or mix things up with cross-training. Don’t do the same old, same old. Winter isn’t the time to get complacent with your exercise routine, especially with holidays on the horizon.
Fortunately, there’s no excuse not to work out when you train at home. Take advantage of that! At the same time, give yourself at least one day of rest each week. Overtraining can depress your immune system and make it harder to fight off viruses. The good news? Moderate exercise can actually lower your risk for succumbing to a cold or the flu. Exercise is a mood enhancer too and can help you shake off the winter blues.
Winter Health: Make Sleep a Priority
Sleep is important spring, summer, and fall but it’s even more important in the winter. Getting adequate sleep can upset the delicate balance of your immune system and put you at greater risk for illness. Plus, research shows we’re more likely to make poor food choices, like junk food, when deprived of sleep. Since winter is already a high-risk time for weight gain, don’t increase cravings for the wrong foods by sleeping too little.
Doing the things discussed should help to keep your immune system strong and help you avoid the winter doldrums.
Medical News Today. “Vitamin D Levels Decrease During Winter Months in Women With Health Conditions” November 2012.
Vitamin D Council. “Influenza”
American Physiological Association. “Substance Found In Fruits And Vegetables Reduces Likelihood Of The Flu” (2009)
Nature Reviews Neuroscience 15, 443-454 (2014) doi:10.1038/nrn3743. Published online 11 June 2014
Journal of Applied PhysiologyPublished 1 August 2007Vol. 103no. 2, 693-699DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00008.2007.
Science Daily. “New links between sleep deprivation, immune system discovered” (2013)
Medical News Today. “Junk Food May Be More Appealing To Tired Brains” (2012)
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